For a moment, Gilbert Seymour had the world at his feet. He’d just climbed Mt Cook with legendary guide Harry Ayres, and from the summit he could look back down the sweep of the Tasman Glacier to his pride and joy, the 8000 golden tussock hectares of his high-country run, Ferintosh Station.
“The fifties were the best times around here,” he says. “There was a lot of money around, and it felt like anything was possible.” He went out to prove it by flying solo over the summit of Cook, making him, he suspects, the only climber to both climb and fly over the peak.
We chat between sips of coffee and bites of Shrewsbury biscuits. Seymour cut a gap in the windbreak around the homestead, so he can gaze upon his mountain any time the clouds part. It could well be the grandest view from a patio anywhere. “No two days are ever the same here,” he says, regarding Aoraki with a look some of us might keep for a lover.
Ferintosh lies with its back against the Ben Ohau mountains and its feet in the glaucous reaches of Lake Pukaki. His father bought the place in 1935, and Seymour spent his school holidays here. Apart from a couple of years mustering on a nearby station, he tells me, “I’ve lived here all my life”.
He worked Ferintosh to a keen edge, running 3500 merinos and 150 head of cattle. He developed the easier lakeside flats and gradually retired the ramparts of the back country. It hardly felt like work.
But the world outside was changing. Seymour had never seen Auckland, but it was about to change his landscape, his life, forever. The sprawling city’s hunger for electricity saw the Ministry of Works commission a hydro dam on Lake Pukaki. When it closed the gates in 1952, the rising waters claimed 800 hectares of Seymour’s best country. There was no compensation.
Progress took no pause. A second dam in 1976 raised the lake another 37 metres, swamping the few flats Seymour had left. This time, he got some recompense, “but it was a battle all the same”.
In no time at all, the clawing waves began dragging the shoreline—now steep and exposed—crumbling into the lake, so the ministry planted trees to hold it. Its staff sowed thickets of Douglas fir, and a hardy, gnarly conifer called Pinus contorta—the lodgepole pine. Seymour would come to despise the very name.
Contorta is a native of North America, honoured as the provincial tree of Alberta, Canada. Introduced to New Zealand in 1880, it is a tenacious coloniser of loose steeplands and can cope with pretty much anything, which is why it caught the attention of the New Zealand Forest Service in the 1950s.
Soil engineers had long been dubiously eyeing the scree fans tumbling in rocky aprons down the New Zealand high country, and were convinced that introduced browsers—deer, goats, rabbits—were the cause. The answer, it was decided, was to hold the slips with exotic trees.
Contorta was their first choice—by 1955, they’d planted 8000 hectares of it—but they also planted Douglas fir and Corsican, Scots and Ponderosa pines, among a dozen others.
At Lake Pukaki, just as soon as the contorta were old enough to grow viable cones—around six years—their seeds started floating onto Ferintosh; 15,000 from each tree, each year.